Unions organise support for firies and devastated communities

January 10, 2020
Sydney protest for real action on the climate, December 21, 2019. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

As the bushfire emergency drags on, with large parts of the country devastated, unions are demanding the government provide greater support for the firefighters, more assistance to the affected communities and to confront the climate change reality.

As Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) NSW state secretary Leighton Drury told an emergency rally in Sydney last December 21: “Firefighters put out fires. Politicians put out policy and budgets. We are doing our job. They need to do a better job of theirs.”

He said the fires were the “worst we’ve had in decades” and that governments had “failed” to adequately fund services. “We’re on the bones of our arse. There are now fewer professional firefighters than there were in 2011.

“Almost a decade of denial about the changes in the environment from this government has led to us being here today. Our state is in drought, our water is scarce, our firefighters are spread thin and volunteers are exhausted.

“[The NSW Coalition] government has failed to invest adequately in fire services. Towns, regional centres, suburbs and areas of development have been left dangerously under resourced,” Drury said.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Sydney branch secretary Paul McAleer said on January 3 on behalf of the union’s national executive that communities have had to deal with “unprecedented emergency situations” as a “catastrophic consequence of failed policies” by successive governments.

“The climate is changing; it is generating negative impacts in an increasingly dramatic fashion, resulting in death and destruction. We have seen too many homes destroyed and too many lives lost as the continuation of failed policies persists.”

He said that while the union will continue to advocate for radical policies to address the climate crisis, his members and the communities they live in need assistance now.

“The MUA Sydney branch executive has been in contact with multiple government agencies, unions, companies in the maritime industry and politicians across the political spectrum to outline our willingness to assist in any way … to provide the support individuals or the community requires”, McAlear said.

The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national construction division has also called on the building industry to step up and match the union’s $100,000 donation to the bushfire recovery effort as well as commit to helping rebuild communities devastated by the fires.

Unions have also called on the Coalition government to provide federal assistance for workers who have gone without income as a result of the bushfire crisis. This has particularly hurt casual workers.

United Workers Union executive director Helen Gibbons said the fires had “hit casual workers particularly hard”. “These people don’t get paid if they are not at work but they still have to pay their bills and support their families,” Gibbons told the Sydney Morning Herald on January 8.

She said the bushfire crisis showed who the winners and losers were when employers demanded “flexibility”. “Insecure work puts workers in the position of carrying all the risk,” she said.

Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Scott Connolly said on January 6: “Australian workers know the value of standing together, and this is more important than ever during this time of national crisis.

“The ACTU is calling on all union members to reach out to the tens of thousands of their fellow Australian affected by this crisis at their time of need.

“No worker should ever be required to work in dangerous environments. Smoke levels are well beyond the hazardous range in huge areas of the country. Any workers, especially those work outside, who have concerns about their safety should contact their union,” Connolly concluded.

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